Why online learning doesn’t have to be a poor experience

James Clay, head of HE at Jisc, discusses how universities can harness the opportunity for digital transformation presented by coronavirus

Throughout the pandemic, universities have done their utmost to make sure continuity of learning has been maintained as much as possible, and the pace at which the sector has moved is amazing. But now that the initial period of response is coming to a close, and universities are starting to look at more long-term options, a consideration of online pedagogy and strategy will be important.

Differentiating between online delivery and true online learning could be the key to success, enabling institutions to use the technology at their disposal to improve student experiences. Our Reimagining Learning and Teaching roadmap, which we’re working on with UUK. Advance HE and Emerge Education, addresses this, looking towards a post-coronavirus world.

Universities can engage with the agility and flexibility of digital delivery through pedagogical approaches. Online learning isn’t merely a matter of translating established techniques onto new platforms without altering how it’s delivered – it requires real transformation. Where institutions are modifying their pedagogies and methods of delivery, they report good engagement from learners.

Each university will, of course, have their own approach to maintaining consistency, continuity, and quality of the student experience. Maintaining the latter, in particular, is going to be difficult as we emerge from lockdown, and the last thing any institution needs is to be held up by the underlying technology. Systems need to be robust, reliable, and accessible while making effective use of cloud technology. Translation is simple; transformation demands an adjustment in thinking.

If, for example, a class usually happens in the form of a 60-minute lecture, when shifting to online delivery, the lecture could be split up into different sections with activities throughout the day, or even throughout the week. Technology means we are no longer tied to the 9-5 mentality.


The tangible benefits of this flexibility demonstrate that much can be done with approaches such as asynchronous learning. This is a particular asset for those students who may be finding remote learning a strain. Through the pandemic, many have been forced back to their family home or other spaces, which may not always be conducive to study. Some won’t have the bandwidth they need, or may have conflicting responsibilities that mean they can’t sit down for an hour uninterrupted to attend a lecture. This is where the agility of asynchronous learning comes into its own.



Taking advantage of the different methods of delivery afforded by digital technology can give greater flexibility. A maths lecture is very different to a humanities lecture, which is very different to a chemistry lecture, or a creative arts lecture. What tools might create effective online learning experiences that reflect different students’ needs, considering the kind of space they have access to, the subject they’re studying, the size of the cohort, and so on?

Online learning doesn’t have to be a poor experience. When experiences and delivery are transformed, rather than translated, digital technology can facilitate positive change, supporting institutions, staff and students as they make the most of unforeseen circumstances.

Looking towards a post-coronavirus future for the HE sector, Jisc is partnering with UUK, Advance HE and Emerge Education in a research programme that will produce a roadmap to tech-enabled  learning and teaching from 2021/22 and beyond. More information on the project is available here.

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